Universities are once again at the center of national debate. While over the past few years it had become fashionable in certain quarters to construe “academic freedom,” like “free speech,” as a right-wing talking-point, the left has now rediscovered its commitment to the phrase in attempting to ward off Republican attacks on higher education. And while elements of right and left alike embrace making universities a political lightning-rod, others on both sides lament the outsized focus on elite institutions whose problems and pathologies have little bearing on the real material needs of ordinary people.

In such circumstances, it can be helpful to take a longer historical view, in the hopes of detaching from the passions of the moment. Current controversies over the state of academia are far from the first time the state of the university has become central to a nation’s politics. In Victorian England, the character of Oxford and Cambridge became a pivotal issue not just for intellectuals, but for party politics. These institutions drew so much attention not just because they credentialed the elite, but also because they were two of the venerable institutions whose continuous historical tradition Englishmen of the time were inclined to pride themselves on, setting them apart from the perennial tumults of the Continent. 

Three distinctive features of these universities were critical to the debate. First, they were confessional. Oxford and Cambridge had slightly different regulations, but in effect one had to belong to the Church of England to take a degree or be a fellow or faculty member at either one. Many of the universities’ contemporaneous occupants happily regarded them as an arm of the Church. The universities were vulnerable on this score because the country had already departed significantly from its classic confessional state-form—that is, the alignment of citizenship, including political rights, with membership in the established church—by the mid-19-century, most spectacularly in the Catholic Emancipation legislation that by 1830 had removed most civil and political restrictions on the dreaded papists. While full religious equality of Catholics, dissenting Protestants, atheists, and others would not be achieved for some time, the identification of the Church with the nation was already in decline. In this context, the condition of the universities implicated some of the deepest questions about the relationship between religion and politics, and looked (depending on one’s viewpoint) either appallingly anachronistic or like the last stronghold from which one might revive a sounder notion of the Church’s place in the polity.

It’s also important to understand that Oxford and Cambridge were continuous historical institutions. This set them apart from Continental universities, almost all of which had been upended—in some cases, abolished and restored in a completely different form—first to meet the bureaucratic requirements of the modernizing absolutist monarchies of the 18th century, and then even more due to the upheavals of the French Revolution. Universities were precisely the kind of sclerotic—and, worst of all, privileged—corporations that Enlightenment reformers and then the Revolutionaries felt had strangled progress. Universities were emblematic of the society of “estates, orders, and corps” that the reformers wanted gone. (30 years before the Revolution even broke out, the official position of the greatest testament of the Siècles des Lumières, the Encyclopédie, was that endowed foundations should be eliminated.) The Jacobins suppressed the universities and seized their endowments; eventually they were restored, and reformed, by Napoleon. Across the Continent, universities were damaged or at least radically altered during the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. As the historian Laurence Brockliss has observed, early in the 19th century “the university looked like a doomed species.” It survived thanks to an unlikely combination of being “restored as part of a wider conservative reaction” and then transformed under the model of the German research university. Oxford and Cambridge were basically spared all this turmoil. They had suffered the fate neither of their European counterparts nor of an analogous earlier institution in England, the monasteries.

The third important thing to understand about Oxford and Cambridge is that they were collegiate universities. In contrast to the university level, in which the (not very robust) professoriate was located, most of the pedagogical and intellectual action took place in the colleges. Importantly, universities were public institutions, chartered as they had been by the public authorities, whereas the colleges were arguably private, having been set up not as “civil lay corporations,” as one parliamentarian put it early in the struggle, but to “give effect to the charitable intentions of individual founders.” But it was in the colleges that most of the resources resided. So any serious attempt to alter the status quo would also implicate major questions around the public-private distinction. As the same reformer analyzed the state of play: “Now let us understand what Universities are. They are corporations of a public character … invested by the state, in consideration of their high character and usefulness, with other privileges.” By contrast, there “exist a set of other corporations, of a different character, I mean the colleges, which are originally private corporations…But these Colleges…in course of time and by a series of steps…by the nature of the connection now subsisting between them and the Universities,” had “become…as public as the Universities themselves.” Needless to say, not all agreed with this analysis, but all tended to recognize how fraught the public-private distinction had become in the debate.

In the early 1850s, Parliament and an executive commission loosened some of the Anglican restrictions and, importantly, revised university governance structure. The end-result of this program was a “settlement…collegiate, classical, and clerical.” A bewildering patchwork of religious restrictions remained, which seems to defy even the most patient historians to reconstruct. Indeed, the many-volume History of Oxford project doesn’t manage to sum the rules up in a tidy way anywhere. In any case, in the 1860s there remained many different mechanisms for enforcing Anglican membership and keeping positions in clerical hands, some of which originated in parliamentary statute, some in the terms of endowment, some in the university’s policies, and some in college regulations.

This dispensation was challenged by a band of ambitious youngsters, inspired largely by John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, who were known as the university or academic liberals. For them, change in what they regarded as intolerant, classist, complacent institutions could not come fast enough. It was vital, they argued, that Oxford and Cambridge be revolutionized, and many regarded it as the single most important issue since the First Reform Act that had upended Britain’s “immemorial constitution.” 

 “Liberals lambasted endowments.”

University reform became a national issue because it touched on a nexus of deep questions. Alongside the questions noted earlier, such as that of church and state, there was a broader debate over endowments, which to quote the historian Stuart Jones, was “fundamental” to “Victorian politics….Conservatives defended…‘the sacredness of Endowments,’ whereas Liberals lambasted endowments either as obstacles to a competitive market or as appropriations of what was properly considered public property for private or in any case arbitrary purposes.” The great Liberal politician Gladstone tried (unsuccessfully) to eliminate endowments’ tax exemptions, and there was widespread anger among Liberals that the “dead hand of the past” was tying down large chunks of the national wealth to outdated purposes and inefficient modi operandi. As a more egalitarian and more “rational,” in the Weberian sense, social order was coming about, it was intolerable that so many corporate entities were stuck in the mud or earmarked only for specific parts of the population. (It’s worth noting that these Liberals were claiming a right to meddle with institutions that were not directly receiving taxpayer funding; significant state subventions of higher education were still a long way off in England.)

The contestation over endowments was so fierce because of its connection to the broader issue of modernization. What should a modern England—one which could at once responsibly incorporate the working classes into political life and be guided by the science and expertise indispensable to a competitive world—look like? For the university liberals, it entailed an alliance between “brains and numbers” that could only be formed if the university began devoting itself to research, became more meritocratic and responsive to the needs of real academic disciplines, and shed its clerical and religiously-conformist strictures, opening itself to the talent of the whole nation and indeed of the whole empire. By doing so, universities could earn the trust of all classes, and help staff the professions and the civil service which were becoming more vital to national prosperity with each passing year.

In order to accomplish this program, the young liberals decided to take their complaints to the country. As one of the chiefs of the movement put it, “liberalize the national legislature and the national legislature will liberalize Oxford.” That they had to nationalize the conflict was dictated by two facts—one legal and one political. The legal fact was that many of the restrictions and regulations which they lamented had been imposed by Parliament and could only be changed by new legislation. The political fact was that, especially at Oxford, the intra-university and intra-collegiate constituencies were by and large against them. Conservatives had rallied after the 1850s and held many key posts, allowing them to resist even modest reforms. As a result of this intransigence, the university liberals were more than willing to let fear do the work of reason, in Hobbes’s words. “I am convinced,” wrote a fellow of Balliol, “that the majority … within the English universities will cling tenaciously to every bulwark of their ignorance and intolerance, and that the change, in every respect so desirable, can only be brought about by external pressure,” including by fear that they might simply be “spoliated” if they were not to give up their confessional exclusivity and shift a portion of their finances to meet pressing research needs, which meant a movement of resources from colleges to the university level. 

Consider the structure of the contestation here: A minority within the academic community wants to make the university less exclusive, less sectarian, more secular, more meritocratic. It appeals to the legislature both because this legislature alone has the power to amend certain aspects of the status quo, and also because insofar as there is already the power to make changes through academic self-government the incumbents resist doing so. The latter in general wish to prevent any internal liberalization, want Parliament to keep the externally imposed restrictions in place, and sometimes even agitate for additional measures of religious exclusion.

Ultimately, the Liberals won. In 1871, religious tests were abolished; the university was laicized fairly rapidly in terms of its personnel; and a series of commissions authorized by Parliament rewrote college and university statutes to achieve a movement of the colleges’ endowments toward the establishment of a more research-oriented professoriate in the university departments. Thus were modern Oxford and Cambridge born.

It is hazardous to try to draw lessons from history, but the Victorian debate over university reform may shed some light on present controversies. For one, as this history demonstrates, there is nothing distinctly liberal about defending universities, nor anything distinctly conservative about attacking them. Liberals were the ones calling for the state to intervene, largely against the wishes of the university authorities, to remedy the exclusion of important populations and fix what they saw as a corrupt, underperforming academic culture. Universities, I would suggest, are such important institutions that any party that feels it is getting less out of them than it should be is going to be tempted to change them by whatever means it can. Today, liberals defend universities because they are the incumbents; conservatives were the universities’ defenders then because they did not want (as a Chancellor of Oxford and future Tory prime minister saw it) “atheistic liberalism” to carry the day there, as it seemed to be doing in the broader culture.

Nor should we regard efforts to meddle with universities as ipso facto lamentable, any more than it would be lamentable for the public to be worried about how other powerful corporations are acting—although of course the prescriptions that impulse can arrive at may be pernicious or misguided. Everyone knows that the character of education matters greatly to the quality of a society, so for those outside universities to be apathetic about what goes on in them would point to deficit of public spirit.

Further, this history illustrates well a lesson that Louis Menand has stressed: Namely, that there is no “unproblematic conception of academic freedom that is philosophically coherent and will conduce to outcomes in particular cases which all parties will feel to be just.” This does not mean that there aren’t many clear violations of academic freedom; there are, and we need to stop them from occurring. But it does mean that on many of the thorniest issues it is not clear what “academic freedom” will require—and those who think of themselves as sturdy defenders of academic freedom, as I do, should be honest about that. 

This follows from the compound character of academic freedom. First, academic freedom ensures that faculty, and to a lesser degree students, can “investigate, publish, and teach in accordance with their intellectual convictions,” in the words of Chicago’s Shils Report. Second, academic freedom is identified with faculty, and particularly disciplinary, collective autonomy. From this angle, academic freedom involves the scholars themselves directing the core functions of the disciplines (determining curricula and research priorities, making judgments of quality for hiring and promotion, etc.) without undue interference from administrators, donors, and politicians. And there is often said to be a third dimension of academic freedom, “institutional academic freedom,” the autonomy of university authorities in such matters as their budgeting, admissions, and course of study.

Scholars like Robert Post try valiantly to make these parts fit together, or at least the first two, under a conception of “democratic competence,” but try as we might, the potential for conflicts between them is clear. To take a glaring example: the medieval university (to use a broad category) was arguably the apotheosis of the second face of academic freedom, the guild or self-governing aspect of it, but it was very far from a high-water mark for the first face of academic freedom, the individual-rights side of it. It was probably awareness of this fact that led Humboldt, pioneer of the modern research university, to say, “It is no more advisable for teachers to govern themselves than it is for a troupe of actors to direct their own affairs.”

We have here another version of the tension between liberalism and democracy. There is no getting around the need to rely on prudential judgment and collective deliberation (sometimes inside the university, but also sometimes reaching to the broader public) about which courses of action overall promote excellent research, the search for truth, the dissemination of knowledge, effective teaching and learning, and a culture of vibrant argument. Consequently, I would distrust any neat theory of how all the good things that are asserted to go together under the umbrella of academic freedom can always be gotten. 

An example of how these dilemmas play out today: In 2020, many Princeton faculty signed onto a demand to establish a “committee” that would prevent “racist” research from being conducted by faculty. Let’s say that a referendum of faculty had been held on that issue, and this proposal had won, thus qualifying as an unambiguous instance of faculty self-governance. In that event, I would have welcomed an administrative or even external-legislative override of a proposal that would have in practice seriously abridged individual faculty and students’ freedom of research, whatever the intentions of those who signed the document may have been. In a similar vein, if Randall Kennedy and others are correct that the use of DEI statements (which has drawn comparison to the old practice of subscription to the 39 articles of religion in the unreformed English universities) does impose an ideological litmus-test, then it seems unclear how invoking academic freedom could be a sufficient response, for example, to conservative threats to condition funding for higher education on ceasing to require such statements—although of course the devil will be in the details and the implementation, and there are ways such efforts could go astray. There is a danger that the more guild-oriented recent deployments of academic freedom can sound like the tea partier who warned the government to keep its hands off her Medicare. There is an undoubted tension between (on the one hand) the large subsidies and subventions which universities receive, as well as the repeated calls for greater deference to academic credentials, and (on the other) the defensive posture that suggests the public is overstepping when it inquires into the satisfactoriness of the conditions on which academic life is being carried on.

“The principle of academic freedom on its own can’t offer us much guidance.”

Or take the case of the University of California system and standardized tests. A few years ago a duly convened faculty committee studied the question and recommended continuing to mandate standardized tests for admission—only to have the administrative powers ignore the recommendation. Who should the public want to settle this question, one which bears on social mobility, fairness, academic performance? Appeal to the principle of academic freedom on its own can’t offer us much guidance. 

To give a final example, while the American tradition of academic freedom dictates that faculty should not be sanctioned for (even abhorrent) extramural speech, we can all imagine scenarios where a professor’s speech in the classroom was so inappropriate or irrelevant that his department had to intervene, curtailing what (from his point of view) would be his freedom of teaching. In these and many other such cases there is no avoiding difficult questions of adjudication between different levels of academic freedom.

Another upshot of the Victorian story is that, although academic freedom is essential to the mission of the university, that does not mean that it is coextensive with the health of the university. I don’t see how you could have built modern Oxford and Cambridge, or many other fine institutions, without treading on the longstanding guild privileges of academics any more than you could have built the modern state without trampling the privileges of longstanding ranks, estates, and corporations. In less dramatic form, similar conflicts between academic freedom and other important societal values will continue to present themselves. Take a recent development in Connecticut, where the state government is considering a ban on legacy admissions throughout the state. Yale has strongly protested this bill as an infringement on its institutional academic freedom. One can believe both that Yale is right, as far as it goes—and yet support the Connecticut bill. We want many things from universities besides simply that they ensure academic freedom.

A final interesting fact about the university reform debates of the mid-19th century is how little “academic freedom” was invoked at all. Instead, the most frequently recurring value for the Liberal reformers was nationalism: They urged incessantly that the universities are part of the national patrimony and should not be treated as the property of a political-ecclesiastical party, even one tied to the established church and even if that connection had been present for centuries. Looking back, a 1901 volume summed up the whole movement as “the nationalization of the English universities.” 

An article from the midst of the fighting cheered that if Liberal proposals were followed, “the Universities would rise from a position of intellectual mediocrity … to become the national seats of national learning in the widest sense of the world; they would no longer hold, in the eyes of a large part of the nation, the invidious position of sectarian corporations … closed … to half the population of the country”; Parliament, he continued, had to “satisfy the public demands for really national Universities.” Similarly, the feeling that universities today have lost something of their national character is driving much of the agitation around them. This problem certainly intersects with the issue of academic freedom, but it is not identical to the latter, and would not, I suspect, be fixed even by granting the fullest and most consistent allotment of academic freedom possible.

Greg Conti, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, is Compact’s editor-at-large.

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